It is proving to be one of the most prolific years in music.
Heavyweights Kendrick Lamar, Drake, The Weeknd, Charli XCX and Rosalía have all released projects and there’s only more on the horizon.
First it was a slow drip, then a torrent and, as the music industry tries to go back to normal after COVID-19, the wave could continue. Brent Faiyaz and Beyoncé are just around the corner in July and could blow this list up in less than 30 days.
With live performances becoming a legitimate thing for fans to look forward to, every artist under the sun is trying to capitalize. Six months from now a Rihanna album could drop at 3:30 p.m. on a Sunday and we wouldn’t bat an eye.
Actually, we would, that would be massive.
A few of us at the Star, who have been contributing to the weekly Star Tracks series, have kept our ears to the ground for the newest and best music out this year. But it’s not just about singles — we’ve been following albums too. These 11 albums (with a few honourable mentions), presented in no particular order, resonated most with us in the first half of the year.
You can find a playlist of tracks from the albums on this list here on Spotify.
The Weeknd — “Dawn FM”
*****EPILEPSY WARNING ********
In 2020, when The Weeknd released “After Hours,” it wasn’t a fluke or a gimmick. In fact, “Dawn FM” is a sequel in a trilogy that delves further into synth pop and grandeur, and could rival the original.
Lyrically, The Weeknd has not switched up: he’s just as toxic, just as much of a womanizer and just as lovesick as ever.
This time, instead of toiling the streets of Las Vegas and embracing hedonism, The Weeknd, accompanied by the great Jim Carrey, offers a radio show for your path to the afterlife. And with that come all the exhilarating shimmering highs you could imagine.
Whether it’s the striking synths of “How Do I Make You Love Me?” or shining ’80s revivalism of “Take My Breath” or the Michael Jackson-esque “Sacrifice,” The Weeknd joins the past with the present for a successful attempt at a euphoric future.
Highlight: The convergence of every version of The Weeknd on “Is There Someone Else?” shows his mastery over his latest synth pop/R&B excursion. — Demar Grant
Amber Mark — “Three Dimensions Deep”
I extend my thanks to the YouTube algorithm for introducing me to 28-year-old R&B singer Amber Mark.
From Amber Mark’s debut album, “Three Dimensions Deep.”
Mark, born in Tennessee, has delivered an eclectic, groundbreaking album that details her experience with love, heartache, lessons in life and relationships, and finding strength in self.
“What It Is,” “Foreign Things” and “FOMO” are some of the show-stopping tracks off the album.
“What It Is” carries a confused and distraught Mark through a series of emotions as she tries to communicate with a partner unwilling to make things better in the relationship. A feeling many of us know too well.
“Foreign Things” and “FOMO” let loose of that worry — if your partner refuses to put in the effort, Mark sings, thank God for palm trees and “no stress season.” These are two powerhouse dance records and I actually refuse to step in clubs not spinning them.
“Most Men” is the anthem for all ladies out there who are also through with the stress past and present relationships bring.
“Three Dimensions Deep” takes a vulnerable, honest and confident view on love and how our desire for that sacred connection can oftentimes be just as magical when found within ourselves. — Annette Ejiofor
Highlight: The crashing of the uptempo bass in “Foreign Things” and the bubbling sense of being limitless in “FOMO.”
Charli XCX — “CRASH”
Last summer Charli XCX tweeted “rip hyperpop,” signalling her upcoming departure from a genre that she helped pioneer/perfect on albums like “Pop 2” and “Charli.”
The official visualiser for Charli XCX – “Lightning.”
As a longtime fan, I’ll admit that I was skeptical of the early “CRASH” singles — polished, radio-ready songs like the Gaga-adjacent “Good Ones.” But as usual, Charli delivered, serving up 33 minutes of unabashed dance-pop bliss.
Inspired in part by Janet Jackson, “CRASH” takes listeners on an intoxicating odyssey through the ’80s and ’90s, making reference to electro-funk (“New Shapes”), new jack swing (“Baby”) and house music (“Beg For You”).
But the album also includes elements that will satisfy fans of the “old Charli,” like the glitchy percussion on “Move Me” or the retro synth line that snakes through the A.G. Cook/Daniel Lopatin collaboration “Every Rule.”
Highlight: “Lightning” has a bit of everything — a smouldering intro, robo-vocals, icy synth stabs, flamenco guitar — but the song, and maybe the album, reaches its zenith in the song’s back half, when Charli’s vocals get chopped and distorted into a digital cartoon, recalling her classic “Track 10.” — Richie Assaly
Nigo — “I Know NIGO!”
It’s fashionable to have friends in high places. Bathing Ape creator, designer, DJ and producer Nigo is at the nexus of hip hop’s most fashionable, surrounded by some of hip hop’s hottest artists.
Official audio for Nigo “Lost and Found Freestyle 2019” (with A$AP Rocky & Tyler, The Creator).
It’s rare for a collab album to make a list like this, but when the likes of A$AP Rocky, Tyler, the Creator, Pharrell, Pusha T, Lil Uzi Vert and Pop Smoke all occupy the same place it’s bound to be explosive.
In what it lacks in cohesion, “I Know NIGO!” more than makes up for it in dynamism.
A$AP Rocky slides over the key-laced, atmospheric “Arya” followed by Pusha T’s signature witty cocaine lines, and there’s even a classic barking-filled hype track from A$AP on “Paper Plates.”
The project also features the stellar “Lost and Found Freestyle 2019” from the unofficial duo Tyler, the Creator and A$AP Rocky that hosts a stank face-inducing beat switch.
Pop Smoke’s haunting trap track “Remember” also happens to be his best posthumous song yet.
“I Know NIGO!” is a grab bag, but it’s a grab bag filled with gold bars, keys to a Ferrari Enzo and a Ben Baller chain.
Highlight: Tyler, the Creator rapping about a paramour being late on “Come On, Let’s Go” is something only he can pull off. — DG
Kendrick Lamar — “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers”
Kendrick Lamar’s latest opus arrived just over a month ago, but I feel like I’ve still only scratched its surface.
From Kendrick Lamar’s “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers.”
On “Mr. Morale,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper from Compton bravely bares his soul as he plumbs the depths of generational trauma and sexual politics, taking listeners on a harrowing journey through the protagonist’s therapeutic journey to self-discovery and accountability.
The result is a brilliant but flawed work of art, containing moments of beauty (“Purple Hearts,” “Die Hard”), club-ready party tracks (“Silent Hill,” “N95”) and heartbreaking confessionals (“Father Time,” “Mother I Sober”).
The flaws come when Kendrick misses the mark several times, like on the shrill relationship drama “We Cry Together” or the problematic/unlistenable “Auntie Diaries.”
It’s Kendrick’s worst album in a decade and yet it’s endlessly fascinating, proving why he’s the best rapper alive.
Highlight: I’m a big fan of the pianist Duval Timothy, whose delicate but haunting compositions set the mood for much of the album including on “United in Grief” and “Crown.” — RA
UMI — “Forest in the City”
UMI is the “Forest in the City.”
The theme of growth permeates this album from the cover down to the speed of the project.
The debut album from the L.A.-based artist is a slow burner neo-soul album that’s as reflective as it is tranquil.
Prudent in her songwriting, UMI paints elegant pictures of self-discovery alongside falling in and out of love over lonely guitars.
The song “hard feelings,” with its dawdling pace accompanied by heavenly vocals and meditative lyrics, is a personification of the entire album.
Highlight: The melody on the hook for “what would u do?” is the most fun I’ve had in singing along to a hook in a very long time. There’s something endearing in its childishness. — DG
Destroyer — “Labyrinthitis”
Nearly three decades into his career, Vancouver’s Dan Bejar is making some of his strangest and most compelling work as Destroyer frontman.
Bookended by a sprawling new wave opener, “It’s in Your Heart Now,” and the raw, stripped-back closer, “The Last Song,” Destroyer’s 13th album is an erratic collection of sounds and ideas that acts as a canvas for Bejar’s frenzied lyrics.
“The sound of ‘Labyrinthitis’ is the sound of someone drifting away from songs,” Bejar told me in an interview earlier this year, cynically suggesting that he might be done with music. This seems unlikely, but would make “Labyrinthitis” a hell of a swan song.
Highlight: The chaotic spoken-word outro on “June” is the sound of a mind unravelling. Endlessly fascinating. — RA
Vince Staples — “RAMONA PARK BROKE MY HEART”
Even during its poppiest moments Vince Staples’ latest project is a sombre reflection of his hometown, Long Beach.
Directed by Vince Staples & C. Blacksmith
A dalliance from earlier work “RAMONA PARK BROKE MY HEART” is stripped down production wise, trading dynamic beats for consistent, demure sleekness to contemplate.
The muted production coupled with Staples’ sullen lyrics drive home the vulnerability of each song as Staples outlines an upbringing filtered through the overlooked and then unbeknownst trauma of gang violence.
The album is home to one of Staples’ best written songs, “WHEN SPARKS FLY,” in which the entire track is a double entendre for a paramour and a gun’s love for a gangster. It’s also home to tracks like “SLIDE” and “LEMONADE” that showcase Staples’ ability to reveal how much gangbanging affects Long Beach life, even at a party.
Highlight: Staples’ immaculate songwriting on “WHEN SPARKS FLY” cannot be overstated. — DG
Kurt Vile — “(watch my moves)”
On Kurt Vile’s ninth studio album, the Philly singer-songwriter and guitar virtuoso mostly sticks to the formula that he’s perfected over the past half decade or so: laid-back, but fully engrossing music that straddles the line between psych-rock and Americana.
Though there are some detours here — see the Neil Young-inspired piano ballad “Goin on a Plane Today” or the stunning Springsteen cover “Wages of Sin” — “(watch my moves)” mostly thrives on the power of Vile’s dazzling fingerpicking, his languid and conversational drawl, and hazy grooves that grip you like a vice.
Highlight: When Vile breaks out the falsetto on “Mount Airy Hill (Way Gone)” and “Chazzy Don’t Mind.” — RA
Luna Li — “Duality”
Lush. Whether it’s crafting beautiful dreamscapes or illustrating enchanting sonic meadows, Luna Li’s “Duality” is the epitome of lush.
Packed with serene violins, delicate keys and gorgeous guitars layered atop one another, the Toronto multi-instrumentalist’s debut album serves as a gorgeous blend of classical and dream pop to create what she describes as angel pop.
The contrasting styles make for kaleidoscopic tracks like “Silver Into Rain” where a twinkling harp is an equal force beside dense guitar riffs without it sounding alien next to her stargazing vocals.
Li’s production also makes for fertile ground where lyrics of loneliness and melancholy present as wistful daydreams while still offering feelings of release.
Highlight: The hook and outro on “What You’re Thinking” epitomize how easily Li’s music can slide from visceral to idyllic. — DG
Nilüfer Yanya — “PAINLESS”
The latest offering from Nilüfer Yanya, a 26-year-old artist from London, is a forceful reminder that rock music can still sound vital in 2022.
“Midnight sun” is from Nilüfer Yanya’s new album, “Painless.”
“PAINLESS” makes heavy reference to ’90s alternative, but Yanya’s smoky, Sade-esque vocals and her evocative guitar-playing lend the music a swagger that is firmly rooted in the present.
Written during the pandemic, the album “is about feeling stuck and feeling like you can’t escape,” Yanya told me in an interview earlier this year. And while that sense of angst and loneliness pervades songs like “stabilise” and the heartbreaking “trouble,” there are also moments of thrilling catharsis that only music can provide.
Highlight: Taking her cue from the “loud-quiet-loud” dynamic pioneered by the Pixies, the slow-burning “midnight sun” bubbles with uneasiness before exploding into a crush of distorted guitars. — RA
FKA Twigs — “Caprisongs”
Yves Jarvis — “The Zug”
Rosalía — “Motomami”
Maylee Todd — “Maloo”
Animal Collective — “Time Skiffs”
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